Festivities on the rim of a cocktail glass have historically been reserved for Margaritas and Sidecars (as well as the Sidecar’s predecessor, the Brandy Crusta), but lately the party’s getting a bit rowdy. Now, the world of cocktail rims goes beyond the ubiquitous salt and sugar, reaching interstellar heights as bartenders invent new ways, and even new ingredients, to decorate the glass with eye-catching colors and unexpected flavors.
Mariena Mercer Boarini’s mind-bending iridescent cocktail enhancer, Electricdust, for example, is applied to the rim of the glass to stimulate the palate, creating a tingling sensation on your lips and tongue that feels like a pulsating current. Made with dried buzz button flowers, Electricdust was engineered to leverage the super-tasting power of the ingredient; Mercer Boarini famously used it at the Chandelier Bar in Las Vegas to garnish her iconic Verbena cocktail—a recipe featuring the flowers alongside blanco tequila, yuzu, ginger and lemon verbena.
Buzz buttons, also known as Sichuan buttons, are the flowers of a plant (Acmella oleracea) named for having sensory properties similar to those of Sichuan peppercorns. Mercer Boarini’s Verbena and her work with buzz buttons inspired a generation of bartenders, like Kate Gerwin of Happy Accidents in Albuquerque, New Mexico, to experiment with them as cocktail garnishes.
Chewing the fresh flower awakens the salivary glands and heightens a tasting experience, but there are drawbacks. “You can’t control the effect that people get with the actual flower,” Gerwin says. “So sometimes people would eat the flower, and after a few drinks, they’d get a huge effect and start drooling all over themselves.” The masticated botanical clumps that customers left behind weren’t glamorous either. (Her staff called them spit-flowers.) “We stopped using buzz button flowers because of that.”
So when Mercer Boarini launched Electricdust, Gerwin leaped at the chance to redeploy the cosmic ingredient. At Happy Accidents, which is also a distillery, Gerwin sprinkles the space-age blue Electricdust vertically along one side of the Hey Love cocktail, with their house gin as a base alongside sparkling sake, lychee and coconut syrup. The drink’s name is an homage to her friend Emily Mistell’s bar in Portland, Oregon. Mistell reciprocated at Hey Love with a cocktail called the Happy Accident, which she makes with gin, elderflower, white cranberry and peach, with an Electricdust rim.
The first sip delivers a soothing menthol burn, but without numbing the palate. Your taste buds feel effervescent, a sensation that intensifies with prolonged contact with the rim of the glass. Nuances in a cocktail that you may have missed come into focus.
Mercer Boarini, now the resort mixologist at the Wynn Las Vegas, approaches cocktail design with an epicurean eye. “Cocktails are an amorphous liquid, so you can’t control how people taste each distinct part of the drink the way chefs do with food,” she says. “That’s why I’ve always been fascinated with adding different layers and textures to cocktails—whether it’s bursting boba pearls, foams or creative rims.”
Decorative cocktail rims have taken on a nostalgic bent in recent years, too. The resurgence of the cocktail rim is itself nostalgic, calling to mind not only Jerry Thomas and his instructions for sugaring the rim of a Crusta in his pioneering Bartender’s Guide from 1862, but also the saccharine cocktail rims of the 1970s and ’80s. Over the years, some of these rimmed cocktails, like the (albeit somewhat maligned) Lemon Drop and Tony Abou-Ganim’s Cable Car, have become modern classics.
These days, nostalgic bars—like All Night Skate in Brooklyn—are getting playful with cocktail rims by introducing unexpected ingredients. The bar’s kitschy interior is tricked out with a disco ball overhead and an incandescent neon sign to evoke the inside of a roller rink, with a concession stand–like bar to match. There, they serve the Poppin’ Off, a mezcal Margarita sweetened with strawberry syrup and served in a hobnail-style rocks glass rimmed with crushed watermelon Pop Rocks that crackle with every sip. “We wanted to create an escape from everyday life,” says Olivia Hu, one of the bar’s owners.
At Trina’s Starlite Lounge in the Boston area, the bar team also experiments with quirky rims to bring more fun to their drink menu. Last year, they featured a seasonal cocktail with a salted Tang rim; called It Takes Two to Tang-o, the Tang Margarita included St-Germain and orange blossom water. Another drink, The Fallen Angel, is a Trina’s staple: The tequila-based cocktail (with mango and chile syrup) is served with a “BBQ-dusted rim” that tastes like smoky barbecue-flavor potato chips. “We try not to take ourselves too seriously,” says Rosa Ortiz, the bar’s general manager, “but we never add anything just for fun. We always make sure that it adds to the drink itself.”
Likewise, Hu hopes that All Night Skate visitors won’t mistake the kitschy candy rim on the Poppin’ Off as a sign of a cupcake beverage program. “Gimmick is part of it,” she says, “but we hope that our guests can see that what’s behind the recipes is true passion and skill.”